It’s late December, only days to Christmas. The kids are out of school and it’s dark already at 4:30 p.m. All the lights burn in the kitchen where my husband is busy making sugar cookies with our girls. Flour dusts the counters and floors, and a delicious aroma fills the house. I’ve got emails to tackle, but I’m doing it reclined on the couch while listening to Christmas music. My traditional, classical, contemporary, instrumental, and pop albums shuffle as iTunes creates my playlist. The music stays pleasantly in the background of my awareness until I hear the opening phrase of Happy Xmas.
“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.”
The unmistakable timbre of John Lennon’s voice causes me to pause my work. I close my eyes and listen, the melody, familiar and comforting.
“And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun. The near and the dear one, the old and the young.”
This song in ¾ time, I feel as much as I hear. Like a lullaby, the lilting rhythm soothes. Nostalgia washes over me. Then it pierces me and washes right through. The melody swells with the entrance of the children’s chorus and burgeoning tears fill my eyes, hot and quick.
“A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.”
The music reaches down into my belly and, singling out some unnamed emotion, grabs my carefully crafted control and shakes it loose. The breaking apart is swift, and allows the harmonies to spread like warm liquid through my body, caressing knots in my neck and unyielding shoulders. Fragments of a realization coalesce into a thought, and as it slips into my consciousness, I take a sharp breath in.
And so this is Christmas. Without my mom.
It’s the music that is my undoing. The complex feelings I’ve kept tucked mostly out of the way these five months since my mother died are unleashed. Despair, unfettered, surges upward from the recesses. I let it come. I let it in.
“Time stretches and loops back; this moment contains all the Christmases I’ve spent as her daughter. I miss my mother.”
My eyes spill over as I unwrap my memories like the precious china my grandmother collected, savoring and turning over each tea cup to examine the chips and cracks in the exquisite detail, the worn places as well as those preserved; her warm brown eyes, the curve of her broad smile, the sudden sound of her laugh as she threw back her head, mouth wide open. I remember my childhood and my mother’s Christmas decorations; velvet fruit, a mosaic wall-hanging made of felt, Madonna and child artwork. I remember the candles she lit, and the table she set with lace, and the ham and twice bake potatoes she served. I remember the gifts she made by hand, the knitted sweaters and socks and hats, and the books, always books. I remember, too, the years that the budget of a single mom allowed for only the humblest of holidays. I remember how it pained her.
Time stretches and loops back; this moment contains all the Christmases I’ve spent as her daughter. I miss my mother.
In the song, a key change. The mood lifts and the lyrics offer a message of unity, one that Mom lived every day of her life.
“And so Happy Christmas, for black and for white. For yellow and red. For dark and for light.”
The words penetrate. And the layers of rich sound. While John Lennon sings, “And so this is Christmas, for weak and for strong, the rich and the poor ones, the road is so long,” the children sing in whole notes, “War is ov-er, if you want it. War is ov-er, if you want it.”
Weeping now, I’m saturated with sorrow. And not just for myself, but for everyone with a broken heart at Christmas. For those far from me, devastated by war and without a home, and for those in my own country with nowhere to go. For those families lost to each other, torn apart in conflict. For those stricken with disease and poverty. And for those navigating the excruciating void left by the death of one they love. The cumulative heartache is too much for me. Though the lyrics offer a promise, stretched out for the taking, I cannot reach it. I long to sleep and wake up when Christmas is over.
How can I possibly embrace the concept of peace on earth in the face of such pain and suffering?
I look up from my laptop, and through the translucence of my tears, I see my daughters at the dining room table bent over their cookie-making project. Thickly they spread frosting on baked shapes of candy canes and gingerbread men and stars, and douse them generously with sprinkles. Licking their fingers made red and blue by food coloring, stickiness spreads to everything they touch.
I watch my husband in a bright green elf apron take another batch out of the oven. I know that he, too, is missing his mother. Gone more than two years now, it seems like yesterday we held her hand and watched her drift away, her body succumbing to the brutal ravages of leukemia. For the third Christmas now, he’s observing his mom’s tradition with the kids, the yearly ritual that’s become as important as visiting Santa or decorating the tree, a weekend spent baking at MeMe’s house. Christmas wouldn’t be complete without it.
He uses his mom’s recipe and her cookies cutters, the same ones she purchased over four decades ago, when he was a boy. Dented and worn, the cherished metal talismans hold her energy; a sacred reminder of her presence. He tells me the loss still stings, but his memories are beginning to bring him peace. He tells me as time passes, remembering will bring my mother back to me.
I hold on to what he says, but my grief is raw. I wonder how I can balance remembering her and going on without her. How do I move forward with my life, but not forget the past? But even as I grapple with this great loss, the sharpness of her absence is interwoven with tenderness, my yearning is accompanied by intense gratitude. With relief, it dawns on me that physical separation doesn’t erase the past, and the thought of keeping her with me simply by remembering feels like a profound epiphany and I am consoled.
“Physical separation doesn’t erase the past, and the thought of keeping her with me simply by remembering feels like a profound epiphany, and I am consoled.”
I realize, love is an energy that does not die.
In this season of peace, the boundary between worlds feels thin. Permeable. Magic abounds and belief is suspended. In this elevated state we those no longer living. They are indeed close. But to feel them, we must stop long enough to let the grief in. My sister says, “When I’m still and exhausted and sober and quiet, Mom comes to me. And I cry.”
And so this is Christmas, and I ache to talk to my mom, to hear her voice and wrap her in my arms just one more time. But, I can’t. And it hurts so much that sometimes I can’t breathe. At the same time, I feel her presence everywhere; in every generous act, in every compassionate word, and mostly in the collective love that binds us all. By resisting my inclination to become small and isolate myself from the world, and instead, choose to live largely, even robustly, I feel her closest to me. The human heart can hold both joys and sorrows. I miss my mom and will for the rest of my life. I mourn with husband as he makes his way through the years yet to come without his mother. And simultaneously, we relish our children, beings of pure light, who perpetuate life and keep us looking forward. I see how it’s possible to allow the beauty of the past to alight in the present where new memories are made.
The song ends and a new one begins. My girls break into dancing.
“Children go where I send thee. How shall I send thee? I’m gonna send thee one by one. One for the little bitty baby born, born, born in Bethlehem.”
The rich harmonies and thigh-slapping rhythm from Hall & Oates’ version of the traditional spiritual send my daughters into jubilant cavorting. They jump and bounce, wave their arms and shimmy, whip their hair and shake their hips. All long-legginess and ponytails and adolescence, they are exuberance in motion. Beauty incarnate. I think how Mom would love this. How she would clap her hands and laugh with a wide-open mouth, her head thrown back in delight. I think how she’s right here with us. Still.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grievedifferently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at email@example.com.